midnight appointments

Drutherstone’s Circus is lousy with midnight appointments. Lever boys fetch to and fro to visit the newest dancing girls and also the one’s who’ve been around forever. Mingey and Rustia tend to roll off into the countryside to do god only knows what ritual or prank on the local townsfolk — though there haven’t been any complaints in years so perhaps they’ve taken their games and awful fits of laughter deep into the woods. Goren Hargus has a regular tete-a-tete with the pudding bowl in the mess hall. But, of course, he has covered his tracks quite expertly in the ledger so that absolutely nobody’s noticed. Ungulen — though wise to the nocturnal traffic of the circus — usually sleeps through the night.

Violet laughed, sparkling. She refilled her glass and then Ungulen’s with a thick glugg of sour cherry juice. It was breakfast in the mess.

“Yes!” she insisted, “she had them all in tutus!”

“All four?” Ungulen sought to confirm.

“All four. And she made them each do a pas de deux, a solo, and a soliloquy. Each boy had his choice, of course. None of them shared her bed that night. All us girls laughed and laughed.” Violet was still laughing about it and nearly choked on sour cherry juice. Ungulen said nothing and watched her smiling eyes.

It had become their ritual, a gossipy morning breakfast between friends. Ungulen always looked forward to it. He was really taken by her work with the elephants. Not just what showed up on stage but her whole practice at it. It also didn’t hurt that her appearance seemed to rival the melancholy morning itself. She always dressed in smart, grey shift dresses.

Dr. Lorelei entered the mess hall, already weary over the available comestibles. Ungulen, though enjoying Violet’s story, couldn’t help but focus his attention on the doctor. As the man strode into the mess, lever boys and some of the lower-tier performers all appeared to acknowledge him. A few even approached Lorelei and seemed to have short, businesslike conversations with him. Lorelei ended each interaction abruptly but with a transactional nod.

Ossip, one of the older lever boys, partook of one of these exchanges with the doctor and then, straightaways, the boy then made his way over to Ungulen and Violet’s breakfast setting.

“Morning Miss Violet,” Ossip’s address overtook her funny anecdote with breathless hurry. “Ungulen, I might’s need to ask a favor, if you please?”

Ungulen shrugged. Yes?

“I’ve been settin’ up work on the electricals in the big top but I was wondering if I couldn’t take just a day for an errand of me own? Personal like?”

Ungulen frowned. The big top had been running on gas and oil lamps for too long and the electrical set up had been taking too long as well. Delays were constantly in motion.

“Just one day even, sir. Maybe’s like to clear me head? I’ve been just over and over those diagrams sir but they’re rather hard to squidge me brain around.”

Ungulen nodded. He realized then that he probably hadn’t been helping Ossip the way he could have been. Ungulen, while no genius, had a decent handle on most things mechanical. The electrifying of the big top, while a serious priority, had just kept falling further and further down his list as the numerous problems of the circus had reared their smiling heads.

Ossip was a smart boy, Ungulen knew that. He had some notion that Ossip might make a decent replacement for him as the groundskeeper some day. The boy knew the circus like the back of his hand and despite his struggle to electrify the big top, he was actually a decent little handy with most all of the circus equipment.

“Alright, one day,” agreed Ungulen. Ossip’s face lit up and he hopped away.

It’s nearly a holiday!

Lindsey Drutherstone was scuffed and ruffled from his passage through the continent. He had been carried mostly by train. One cargo ship ride had been thrown in as well to get him across the channel. He had been in the bowels of stowage but found it was manageable and certainly exceeded itself in luxury compared with the nuisance grip of a donkey ride between the stations of Louvelle and Gervitz due to the lack of a connecting rail. He hadn’t been able to get the smell of manure and mildew out of his trousers. He planned to buy a new pair once he reached Erbulii, the trading nexus between the continental empires and the desert kingdoms. He’d trade up for something stylish but affordable.

His thoughts about Janus were still a feathered mess. It seemed that each leg of the journey brought a new slant or consideration to the subject. The whole affair had iridescence, illuminating brilliantly or sinking into a dull prosaic depending on the whimsy of angles. He had the superstitious sense that he could invoke clarity if he could only choose the correct side of his train car to fall asleep in. Somehow, this would invite a shrewd awakening, one that knew better than the last one hundred awakenings. This was never the case, though. He wondered idly if he was a dreaming damned to somebody else’s circus?

He slurped through a centennial’s worth of coffee, all the while reciting speeches in his mind for Janus. Insights into his personality, a formal proclamation of love abused, maybe a withering comment or two. But a mainstay of his hashing thoughts, always, was Janus’s imminent death. The focus on dear, dear Janus’s approaching demise kept him personal to Lindsey. Within reach, somehow. Just a man and not malevolent curse conjured for and solely for him. A man as riddled with mistakes as he was with physical illness. Did Janus feel guilty for him leaving, Lindsey still wondered? It seemed unlikely given Janus’s overall chosen style of life and livelihood. Still, this was the Veil. The cliff’s edge. The last of it. Does that sort of thing change people or does it make them act even more as they did in life? Far from contrition, are they moved by desperation to act all themselves and all at once?

Heaving a sigh and resting his head against the vibrating glass window of his train car, Drutherstone turned his attention back to his namesake, his circus. He felt confident that Ungulen would have things under control. Goren Hargus was, of course, useless, except for his expert ability to stretch every last penny to its celestial limit. Marrionetta, thought Lindsey. Hard grief. He knew the circus’s finances were stable, though, as long as she was around. What a find she was. He recalled meeting her — or at least observing her — thrumming around in nightclubs, earning whatever cash the drunk foolery of Dorcett left on the piano. He had stalked her — in the professional sense — for a few days that week. He saw many of her acts and also the eager way she enmeshed herself into gratis plates of fried tubers at a local cafe. The cook there had also noticed that she was something special.

Drutherstone had seated himself next to her — a gesture that was extremely dangerous in retrospect– and asked if she had any references. He had seen that urchin’s glint in her eyes and known she’d be a hard worker if he gave her enough tether of her own to play with. The dreaming damned just couldn’t get enough of her. He suddenly remembered he had been meaning to discuss her act with her. He felt there were some opportunities to heighten things, make it a touch more frightful. She would throw her shoes at him, of course, but she was always listening.

He smiled. Just as well I’m away from all of that for any stretch of time. He couldn’t help himself and started laughing. It’s nearly a holiday!

The lunch cart banged in the outer corridor. Drutherstone signaled the girl and ordered a plain roll.

“On second thought,” he said to the lunch girl, his good mood swelling, “make it two. Do you have any with raisins?”

to the whisker

Lorelei lurched through the door of the Emerald House, tuckered out from his morning burial of the unmissed bodies. His shovel clattered to the floor. He noticed something out of place inside his rooms and hesitated. He stepped towards the opened package on his table.

With care he noted the torn package paper, checked the label, and evaluated the coin line at the top.

“Pet,” he said quietly. “You’ve opened my mail.”

“Mmm,” Marrionetta was half sleeping in a pile on the floor.

“That isn’t very polite,” he said. He picked up the shovel again and moved towards her. “Honey sweet, I want you to consider this next question very carefully. Did you take any of those coins out of my package? I know how much you like shiny things.”

Marrionetta turned slowly towards him in a slumberous lurch. She spit on his shoe. “No,” she said and closed her eyes again.

Lorelei kicked her in the stomach and shoved the shovel’s edge under her chin.

“Are you quite sure about that? I know precisely how much is set to be in there. To the whisker.”

“I haven’t needed another man’s coin since before you were born you scum mucking, insolent quack.” Marrionetta said. “Only reason’s be I’m still here is those bubbly little goblins you’ve strewn me with.”

He glared down at her, a wrist’s flick away from separating her loud, annoying head from the rest of her more interesting body. He smiled at her.

“Of course,” he said. “Such a prideful little spite. How dare I assume you’d be interested in money. Please,” he reached out a hand to help her sit upright. She accepted.

His stomach gargled. “I don’t know about you but I’m feeling like frogs for lunch.”

coin bucket

The postal service had been through again. Marrionetta could tell. She had been staring out the window of The Emerald House, having a morning drool of lever boy stimulus when she noticed her former friends and fellow circus workers gathering outside the mess hall in recognizable excitement.

That’s not true, she thought. She had never been friends with anyone here at the circus. Just workers dancing elbow to elbow for coin and peanut oil. So it was only her coworkers who were gathered around the mess hall with recognizable excitement. Had she ever had friends? Even before this?

Even if they weren’t really her friends, she noticed each of them and their unique little habits. Ungulen with his enormous striding legs. Goren Hargus rolling around like a cheese wheel. That little dancer girl, Violet, with her clunky elephants. Marrionetta noticed that Violet had a strong pivot to her. Always turning abruptly. Always turning the other cheek, perhaps? There was still no sign of Drutherstone, she noticed. He must still be away on circus business. It occurred to her that he might be angry about what she and Lorelei were doing with the shift employ and the circus guests. Furious, really. She wondered what he might say or do once he found out. Maybe Drutherstone would know how to chase the doctor away. She certainly didn’t know how.

She clawed at an itch inside her nose.

The other performance mastheads cycled through the mess hall to retrieve their packages and letters. Marrionetta was never tempted by the mail. There was never anything for her so she had long ago ceased to be curious. Her endocrine nod was in full swing anyway so very little could tempt her beyond the threshold of her chosen prison.

Through the window, however, she noticed someone clambering up the hill towards The Emerald House. It was a lever boy, one of the older ones. Ossip, maybe? She couldn’t remember all their stupid names. Marrionetta froze when she realized he was heading straight for the house. Panic spun directly up her spine.

Maybe-Ossip knocked on the door of The Emerald House. Marrionetta darted into the fireplace. She wanted desperately for him to go away. She didn’t think Lorelei would murder someone first thing in the morning but she couldn’t put it past him either. She was on a good high and wanted to keep it that way. She couldn’t take another butchering session today. Once he started in, he would never shut up.

The interloper began knocking. Thud. Thud. Thud. “Hullo? Mister Doctor?” Thud. Thud. Thud.

“Fester someone else’s biscuits you shrimping pine needle!” Marrionetta found herself screaming through the door. She coughed after she spoke. Then she wondered how long it had been since she had used her voice.

“Miss Mary?” came the teenaged voice from the other side of the door. “Mister Doctor says I’s should bring this to him on the right by right. Can you take it from me? It’s a bog load.”

Marrionetta realized for the first time all morning that Lorelei wasn’t actually in the house. A few moments puffed by in relative calm. She felt herself breathing. She stood up from the fireplace and answered the door.

Ossip — or whoever he was — definitely found it odd that Marrionetta was covered head to toe with ash and was also drooling down her chin. His eyes showed this to her and she decided not to care. He handed over the extremely heavy package and then box toed his way back down the hill to complete his other circus chores.

Marrionetta worked the cantankerous package inside the house and onto a table. She read the label.

For Swift Delivery To: Herr Doktor Sinvarius Lorelei
At current residence within or adjacent to Drutherstone’s Circus (in entity, LLC, or as such)
Coronet Crown on Gibletson
Empire of Drexx

Do not attempt to return to sender. Do not forward. In the event of package unclaimed in excess of 10 days, package contents to be destroyed as postal agent sees fit.

There was no return address.

A very real threat told her she should leave the package there and climb back inside the fireplace to shore off the rest of her lever boy juice. But she hesitated. Something prickled in the bottom of Marrionetta’s wooden spine. An old feeling. One that had suited her purposes for centuries long before the pull of Lorelei and his infernal, joy-making machines. The feeling was funny, curious, and good. It was mischief. She opened the package.

Inside she found a tin bucket with a lid. She opened the lid to discover that the bucket was full to brimming with silver coins. All of them were stamped with an imperial insignia she could not place.

So, she thought, this is how he affords all that Visigoth veal.

Real Rubies for Marrionetta

Marrionetta sullenly appraised the offerings on the table. A chef’s cherry pick of glistening glands, asymmetric little blobs, bone shards, and organelles.

“Now these are real rubies, wouldn’t you say?” Lorelei ran a hand through Marrionetta’s coarse hair. “It’s rubies you like, wasn’t it?”

She bit her lip and tried to see it his way. He took her hand and ran her fingers over the surface of the choice items. Deep magentas, purples, heightened blues. She felt a shiver up her arm. Even at the slightest touch, she could feel their unique powers carrying through the light bark of her skin and into her chlorophyllic bloodstream. She lightly pinched a cherry red globin. It wept thick yellow tears of some unknown emotion.

“Now,” said Lorelei, “Let’s see what we can arrange just for you, my pet.” He began examining her bodice, trying to find a perfect latch or trap to house some viscera inside of her.

“What will they do to me?” she asked as the mad scientist fingered her underscores.

“We’ll see!” Lorelei whinnied.

She felt a pang of uncertainty. He didn’t know?


Marrionetta peeked out from the wrought iron gate of the fireplace that separated her from the rest of the room. They were all still there, though. Three dead lever boys, a corpulent man with his circus ticket still clutched in his hand, and a goat that Lorelei had managed to rustle up from some nearby farm. Each had been decapitated, drained of blood, and butchered for their various physical effects.

Lorelei had graduated from humming little tunes to loudly baritoning around The Emerald House. Morning, noon, and night he was like a one man operatic as he skated his different knives through the bodies of his victims, choosing perfect morsels depending on their body types and what he had observed of their respective demeanors during life.

“These,” he pointed to the lever boys with a blade for Marrionetta’s benefit, though it was unclear if she could understand him through the block of her psyche, “are much better fare than what you find in cities. Fresh air. Physical exercise. Chronically underfed which creates near perfect conditioning for anything to do with the bones. Flexible. Growth hormones still swimming around in there. They could probably serve marrow like this in restaurants. But,” he laughed, “there would be a market shortage in no time.”

“Now this one,” Lorelei pivoted to the corpulent man. “Forget the bones. Forget every organ in the book. No good. All fat. But what he is good for…” Lorelei surged open a previously nonexistent pocket in the man’s torso. “The adrenals. A wonderful balance of provocation and soothe. Hungry! Full! Hungry! Full! The controlled oscillation makes them very reliable. Almost as good as a chemical battery.”

Marrionetta felt sick listening to both the butchering in process and the lecture. She lifted her eyes out of the fireplace and looked across the room at Lorelei’s office area. She noticed, maybe for the first time, that he had put something new on the wall. It was in a language she could’t read but recognized immediately. It was Visigoth language. It was German.

“The goats,” he carried on feverishly, “are mostly just for synthesizing tissue. Connectivity and all that. You can sterilize practically anything in boiling goat’s urine.”

The German schematic on the wall made an impression on Marrionetta. It overwhelmed her with fear and she looked away. Then she looked back again. She wasn’t sure she was reading it correctly. The schematic mapped out a crazy machine. She could tell it was enormous compared with the other things he had been making. But that wasn’t what disturbed her. The human figures in the middle drew her attention. There in the center were ten, childlike figures, each with a circle around where their hearts would be.

one ticket per dreamer

Violet was sweating. She coated the palms of her hands in finely ground barley meal, praying that she wouldn’t drop her conducting baton — a simple but elegant piece of glass that Ungulen had presented her with at breakfast that morning. The morning of opening night.

“A fairy’s wand, you see that? Made me think of you” he’d smiled at her. “Now go drum up some cash. I’m sick of eating nothing but gruel and Netta’s leftover sardine tins. Wherever the cock’s head she’s got to these days.”

Violet’s stomach sure was churning now. Backstage, her and her elephantarinas were all flowered and powdered up, the entr’actes ahead of them were steadily whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The Keurmite brothers juggled their heads to and fro, pulling faces in mid-air and hurling brotherly insults at one another. Mingey and Rustia torqued a furious sugar plum that you could really sink your teeth into. A strongman swallowed a sword or two, and a very ornery walrus rolled himself through the dirt, roared a stinking belch of clamshells at the crowd, after which he was muzzled again and dragged off stage in a ferocious display of his fat, wattling strength. The crowd was kiting with laughter.

At last, the introductions were being made for Violet and her elephantarinas. She took this last opportunity to gaze out at the audience.

It was a mixture this time, very typical for a showcase not featuring Marrionetta. There were some goat-herding villagers, a smattering of townspeople, and a modest pie slice of the dreaming damned.

You could always pick the dreaming damned out of the crowd by their lustrous, vacant eyes. They arrived at the circus through psychological currents, trapped in nightmares, visions, or other strange liminal experiences. As each arrived, they paid their fare — a moment they would never recall upon waking — to Ungulen or whoever the ticket taker happened to be that night. It was always a sheaf of indigo paper, hazy with linen blending, bordered in silver lief. If the circus performers did their jobs correctly, the dreaming damned would be impressed, frightened, entranced or generally ensnared. These ones tended to return and the repeat patronage was the largest potential source of revenue for the circus, especially as it was strung up on its hind legs in the financial ruin of the Empire’s recent downturn. Unfortunately, circuses were somewhat out of fashion in the modern era and the steady stream of psychologically tormented tourism had narrowed to just a trickle in this day and age. Still, the generous exchange rate for a dreamer’s ticket was the main income source that the circus counted on. One ticket per dreamer.

The french horns sounded. The curtain went up. Violet commanded herself to her full height and smiled a dancer’s smile. Confident and invitational. Welcome, she seemed to say, to my magnificent showcase.

The Physical Differences Between Mingey and Rustia

Rustia and Mingey are fraternal twins. Since birth, they have always looked and behaved quite differently from one another. As they were born into a scratch of hard life that escaped any sort of institutional attention no one in their small, brutish village could understand how two children of the same womb could be so different from one another. The villagers came to fear them or at least be wary in their presence. As a result, Rustia and Mingey themselves came to understand that they were freaks of nature. Their childhood games, which they played together by themselves, always sublimated their sisterly sense that they had a curdling effect on the world.

Mingey has always been darker than Rustia. With hair like fertile earth and a slender frame, Mingey bruises easily. By contrast, Rustia has always been fairer, hungry, and large, with thick, pasta-like hair and irises so icy blue that her eyes resemble peeled onions. Rustia was considered ugly well before the indomitable putsch of her sexual maturation. Only by contrast could Mingey be considered beautiful.

But prior to birth, when they were still just fetuses inside the tight nestle of their mother, Rustia was violent with Mingey. Rustia had a tendency to kick in the womb. Her wild activity spurred their placenta to dilate, delivering more and more sustenance, all of which Rustia would claim first by virtue of her ravenous insatiability. Mingey’s earliest life — unmarked by memory– was instead chaptered out on her skin with many porous bruises that gently leaked aminos and blood into their mutual coil. Mingey would quiver with malnutrition, growing colder inside the maternal furnace. She would be underweight and nervous all her life.

Rustia’s mouth quickened almost overnight and she frequently snapped around to exercise its meaning. She bit Mingey on more than one occasion. Rustia hungered for the world; to feel and to see, to be liberated from the confines of her mother and the choking, weakening thing that was her sister. It seems certain she would have eaten Mingey had it not been for a sudden, induced birth day.

All of this was, technically, unknowable as it occurred behind the opaque walls of flesh and predated the twins’ abilities to self-differentiate. However, the emotional reality of it strengthened their bond once they breached into the world together, as sisters. The year of gestating predation created a breed of intimacy between them that would not be possible otherwise, even if its nature was unspeakable .

In adulthood, the sisters joined Drutherstone’s Circus in search of a better material life. It paid off. Perhaps not handsomely but well enough. Rustia grinds their unicycle while Mingey curls herself around her sister’s shoulders. They have always been this way.

one more trick

“When’d all the tap dancing!? She’s gone and spoiled it now.”Mingey yammed her face at both Violet and the elephants.

“She’s a show off” Rustia assured her fretting sister. “We’ll be back to showcasing in a switch’s whip if this is all Miss Dancey has to show for herself.”

Violet continued to mind and conduct the elephants in their showsteps, carefully sounding along to the shanty on the gramophone. Mingey and Rustia sat sprawled in the dying grass on the other side of the pen, chewing on blood oranges and aiming the rinds at Violet’s hair. The twins’ unicyle slowly rode itself around them in a creaking circle. It was a family heirloom and, therefore, haunted with a mind of its own.

“Mister Doctor,” Rustia continued, “told me he’s very fond of you, sissy.”

Mingey squealed and brought a childish hand to her cheek, adding a needless flourish on her compliment.

Rustia continued, “next time he’s around, ask him for earrings and see what he does.”

The elephants were self conscious under the weight of Violet’s stricken mood. She was irritated by the sisters but also in state of disquiet over her upcoming showcase. Was the elephant act interesting? Had she over promised? She had spent too many hours training her friendly beasts to have any more perspective on it than they had.

Maybe, she thought, she would add one more trick.

the piggies come close

Marrionetta watched as Lorelei roped the struggling lever boy into the chair. His mouth was gagged with waxed cloth which muffled his screams. Lorelei pulled the boy’s hair, setting his neck backwards and dripped a sedative up his nose. Soon, the boy slipped into shallow breaths of unwanted sleep.

Marrionetta bobbed. Her head was bobbing. Her legs her bobbing. She couldn’t keep all her parts from moving around. She had become unsyncopated. Her appendages had been taken apart and put back together so many times, she was having trouble unifying. Her gaze shifted around the sleeping lever boy, seeing him and unseeing him, both together.

Lorelei offered Marrionetta one of his smaller knives. “The honors?”

Marrionetta vaguely shook her head. She believed strongly that she didn’t know what he meant even though she knew exactly what he was asking her to do.

“Joy? Mania? Which ones are your favorites again? Everybody’s different.”

Marrionetta wrinkled her brow. She didn’t exactly care about the health or wellbeing of any of the lever boys at the circus. They annoyed her, frankly. They had awkward, developing voices of boy-men, unkempt clothing, incomplete information, and they frequently broke her things and ruined her costumes. She didn’t know this one’s name, the one in the chair. He didn’t even really seem familiar.

“The high is more intense when it’s human to human. The piggies come close but this is going to be real fun.” Lorelei shimmered the knife over the young boy’s flesh, waiting for Marrionetta to state a preference.

She looked at other parts of the room. Was this really The Emerald House? How long had she been staying up here? She felt a well of uncertainty yawn open in the air around her. She felt herself pulled into it. There was a dull roar in her ears and a freezing ocean seemed to swell through her bloodstream. She felt lightheaded. Then, a moment later, she snapped back to the stinging presence of her Visigoth friend championing violence over their small kidnap.

“I don’t want anymore today?” she tried.

Lorelei shrugged, “Suit yourself.” He slit the boy’s throat. Marrionetta grabbed at her face, sniffled and crawled back into the fireplace.

her elaborate fussiness

Ungulen knocked loudly on the door with the yellow triangle.

“Ay, Netty! Sleeping out wigtails, are we? Upsies or I’m giving ninth shift your breakfast tins.” There was no answer. He knocked louder.

“Netta! Cut your diva butter bunchin’ and open the door.” He waited a few moments. Then he rolled his eyes and, in one momentous arc of his powerful leg, he popped the door cleanly off its hinges and into Marrionetta’s dressing room.

“Sorry but you’re being a real puss today.” Ungulen stepped in over the fallen door.

To his complete surprise, Marrionetta was not inside. Ungulen looked around the room carefully. Nothing seemed particularly out of place. At least, by Marrionetta’s standards nothing looked out of place. Her rooms — which were wherever she chose to take up residence on the fairgrounds at any given moment– were always a total bother to Ungulen’s sense of orderliness and proportion. How could such a small, wood cut woman live in such an unnecessary state of clutter? Her elaborate fussiness never ceased to annoy him. Then again, she was the star and he, the humble groundskeeper. What did he know?

Still, it was odd her not being there. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really seen much of her on the fairgrounds for weeks. Because their next big act was a showcase for Violet and the elephants, Marrionetta hadn’t been required at any rehearsals in some time. He thought he saw her traipsing around on the hill a few evenings ago but now he wasn’t so sure.

Something wasn’t right.

Ernt Rauchebaum’s quivering fingers

“Six cartridges, ten batteries, three stones of solder, and this.” Ernt Rauchebaum carefully extracted a silkbound package from the inside of his jacket.

Doctor Lorelei examined each of the items. He weighed them in his hands, aware that Ernt had both the technical and economic know-how to short him on almost anything. He took his time appraising.

Ernt sat awkwardly in the stiff back chair. He couldn’t help but watch Marrionetta — the star dancer he knew quite well — rummaging around in the fireplace, covering herself in black ash. “Everything alright, Miss Mary?”

Marrionetta reacted to the sound of her name but couldn’t manage to conduct her attention outside the confines of the fireplace.

After a length of time Lorelei said, “These appear to be in order. Let’s see the beauty.” He slid the silk wrapped item towards himself. Out of the delicate fabric, he unspooled a huge and superb knife. The handle was carved stone. The blade a magnificently light alloy. The weight differential made it as agile as a dragonfly.

He sliced the air in a deft gesture, causing Ernt to wince backwards. Lorelei’s lip curled to one side, taking pleasure in Ernt’s fright. Lorelei pulled a bundle of silverbacks from his boot.

“I’m satisfied,” he said, depositing the payment into Ernt’s quivering fingers. Ernt’s track marks showed him back out the door again. Back to Belfast. Probably.

Whatever happened to Ernt Rauchebaum?

Rustia and Mingey zipped around the inner perimeter of the big top on their unicycle. Rustia’s rippling calves radiated heat and speed on the pedals as her sister coolly affected languid pose after languid pose atop her sister’s shoulders. Lever boys and jugglers milled around, setting cranks askew and liberating weighted pins from gravity.

“That’s all?” Ungulen questioned Violet. “Usually an elephant show needs far more space than what you’re squaring out.”

“No no,” Violet said. “I’ve scaled things down. It’s artful this time.”

Ungulen exchanged a glance with Goren Hargus.

“Miss,” Ungulen bowed slightly to Violet, “the showcases are meant to turn in some coin.”

“Coin, yes.” Hargus agreed. “You like eating, don’t you, Violet?”

Violet smiled at the two men. “It’s going to be the talk of the town. I’ve taught the elephants a lot of new tricks. It’s very interesting.”

Ungulen squinted at Violet. She stuck her chin out. “Drutherstone entrusted it to me and it’s not like Ernt Rauchebaum ever came back.” she said.

“Whatever happened to Ernt, anyway?” Hargus said.

“Belfast, I think?” said Violet.

Ungulen shrugged agreeably. “Alright then. But if we don’t make any money, you’re back on the chorus line.”

Violet saluted, military style. Ungulen sniffed at her. She was funny, once you got to know her.

The twins, Mingey and Rustia suddenly sliced down the diameter of the circus ring like unicycling shrapnel. The three conversationalists were cast in separate, panicked directions.

“Get a bell!” shouted Ungulen after the crazy sisters. They cackled and zoomed out of the tent.